Originally Published: October 16, 2010 9:58 p.m.
Here's food for thought: Food allergies are on the rise in the U.S. with one in 25 Americans reporting they suffer from them. For children under the age of 3, one in 17 has food allergies. Because food allergies can be life-threatening, they merit serious attention and the advice of a physician.
A food allergy occurs when the body's immune system incorrectly identifies a food protein as a threat and attempts to protect the body from it. This triggers an allergic reaction that may include hives or a tingling sensation, itching or a metallic taste in the mouth. Some people experience gastrointestinal symptoms, such as vomiting.
The most severe allergic reaction, anaphylaxis, occurs quickly. People having an anaphylaxis reaction typically have difficulty breathing and some even lose consciousness. Without an immediate injection of epinephrine (adrenaline), this condition may be life-threatening. Many people with severe food allergies carry a self-injectable epinephrine device with them at all times. According to The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), teens and young adults who have peanut or tree nut allergies in addition to asthma are at the highest risk for a severe allergic reaction.
FAAN reports that eight foods account for 90 percent of all food allergies in the U.S. They are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts, almonds and cashews), wheat, soy, fish and shellfish (such as shrimp, crab and lobster). For people who are highly sensitive to these foods, even absorbing trace amounts of them through skin contact or inhaling steam from cooking can trigger a reaction.
Physicians may use a variety of tools to diagnose food allergies, most frequently those include:
taking a detailed history from the patient;
asking the patient to keep a food diary;
administering specific blood tests; and
performing a series of skin tests.
Additionally, some physicians use the "elimination diet" to diagnose food allergies. By asking the patient to remove the suspected foods from their diets, a physician is able to diagnose allergies if the symptoms disappear. The physician may then ask the patient to re-introduce the foods to their diets to confirm the allergies, but only if the patient has not had severe allergic reactions.
What happens when a food allergy is confirmed? While there are no known cures for food allergies, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology recommends that people who have been diagnosed with food allergies take the following precautions:
Ask about ingredients when eating at restaurants or when eating foods prepared by family or friends.
Read food labels to detect possible allergens. Since 2006, food manufacturers have been required to list food allergens in plain language on their ingredient lists.
Carry and know how to use injectable epinephrine and antihistamines to treat emergency reactions. Teach family members and others close to you how to use them, too.
Food allergies can be extremely dangerous, so it's best for people with these allergies to work with a physician to diagnose and treat them.